The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

A Powerful Award-Winning Novel

The Book Thief - Cover of 10th Anniversary Edition
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, 10th Anniversary Edition. Alfred A. Knopf

The Book Thief is a brilliantly crafted story about a young girl whose passion for books sustains her while death and war rage around her. Once in a while a book comes along that is soul stirring. Such is the case with the phenomenal literary creation The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, which begins in Germany in 1939. Winner of numerous awards, including a prestigious Michael L. Printz Honor Book from the American Library Association, The Book Thief is a powerful book for teens and adults looking for complex and deeply moving fiction.

The Story

Set amidst the frightening and unsettling political background of 1939 Germany is the heartbreaking account of Liesel Meminger. The narrator of her story is Death who encounters Liesel on three separate occasions. First, when he comes to claim her younger brother Werner on a train taking them to meet their foster parents.  Second, when he comes to claim souls after a bomb is dropped on her town, and finally, when he visits Liesel as an older woman. Death finds the book Liesel was writing during the ​bomb raid and uses it to tell us her story.

In 1939 Liesel arrives in the town of Molching Germany and is taken to the home of her foster parents, an elderly German couple named Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Hans Huberman finds Liesel's first stolen book and teaches her to read and write. Liesel's passion for books leads her to steal one book from the mayor’s wife and another one from a book burning.  

An emotional turning point in the book occurs when the Hubermanns take in Max, a Jew, and the son of the man who saved Han’s life during the Great War. Hiding Max in their basement is a dangerous undertaking for the Hubermanns. 

Already in danger of hiding a Jew, Hans Hubermann risks punishment when he offers bread to a Jew. Now under suspicion, the Nazi police want to search the Hubermann home forcing Max to flee and Hans to join the German army.  With both men gone Liesel brings comfort to her neighbors by reading to them. She is in the basement of her home writing the story The ​Book Thief when the bombs begin to drop. 

Awards and Recognition

The Book Thief has garnered awards and recognition around the world and has been translated into many languages. Although first noticed in 2006, the book continues to be praised and enjoyed. It is destined to be a literary classic.

  • 2006- Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (South East Asia & South Pacific)
  • 2006 - Horn Book Fanfare
  • 2006 - Kirkus Reviews Editor Choice Award
  • 2006 - School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
  • 2006 - Daniel Elliott Peace Award
  • 2006 - Publishers Weekly Best Children Book of the Year
  • 2006 - Booklist Children Editors' Choice
  • 2006 - Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book
  • 2007 - Boeke Prize
  • 2007 - American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults
  • 2007 - Michael L. Printz Honor Book
  • 2007 - Book Sense Book of the Year (Indie’s choice)
  • 2009 - Pacific Northwest Young Readers Choice Master List
  • Winner of the National Jewish Book Award

Key Topics for Discussion

The story of The Book Thief lends itself to several topics worthy of engaging teens in meaningful and thoughtful discussions:

  • Book burnings
  • Courage
  • Death
  • Friendship
  • History of World War II
  • Holocaust
  • Humanity
  • Literacy
  • Tolerance.

Our Recommendation

The Book Thief is one of our all-time favorite books for several reasons: It’s a beautiful story that lingers with you long after the final page is read; the writing is of a classic literary style that is intelligent and wraps readers into a poetic cocoon, and the well-developed characters, major and minor, feel so multi-dimensional it's as if they could walk right out of the book and be recognized. Every word, every character is created with purpose and there is nothing to spare. A reader invested in this story will feel spent when the story comes to a close.

What we love most about this book is Zusak’s brilliant choice of a narrator. By allowing Death to narrate the story and giving him the ability to wonder at his connection to Liesel, Zusak brings to his story a haunting and heartbreaking quality. Death, as the narrator, becomes a being capable of emotion and who seems to know that we, the readers, need to become familiar with Liesel’s story.

In addition to the book, we highly recommend the audiobook version. The narrator, Allan Corduner, is a classically trained actor who reads eloquently so as to capture the beauty and feeling of Zusak’s words. His rich tone and perfect cadence draw the listener into the story.

Best for ages 14-18 and adults: mature readers who can handle advanced literary writing and difficult subject matter.

(Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Hardcover ISBN: 9780375831003; 2007. Paperback ISBN: 9780375842207; 2016. 10th Anniversary Edition ISBN: 9781101934180)

(The Book Thief (Audio book) (Listening Library, 2006. ISBN: 9780739337271) 

The Book Thief is also available in e-book formats.